9 September 2005

No one openly asked. But questions inevitably floated. Quietly. Discreetly. Concerned friends rather than adversaries wondered why didn't the current Secretary General make a special effort to attend a once a hundred years centennial birthday celebration of one of his most prominent predecessors. Was he too isolated to recognize the slight? Was he too busy tending to a forthcoming Volcker report? Was he too touchy about a commemorative publication that he felt should have devoted more attention to his own accomplishments? Was he too wary of the likely comparison between the unique performances of Dag Hammarskjold and his own beleaguered status? Has he become too sensitive about hearing praise lavished on anyone else, even if it was a dead Secretary General? What's the situation in New York, really? Let's hope it's just a case of pained shoulders and that he's really alright.

Anyone who knows Kofi Annan will tell you that in personal matters he is very deliberate. Naturally, a very busy Secretary General traveling, covering so much ground and meeting so many people will overlook or forget. But not when it comes to a once in a hundred years event concerning his most distinguished predecessor whom he -- at more ideal times -- had claimed to emulate.

Hence the astonishment, not to say disappointment, at his absence from the centennial celebration in Sweden of the 100th Year Anniversary of Dag Hammarskjold's birthday.

As the King and Queen of Sweden presided over a memorable, gracious, deeply moving event, the glaring absence of the current occupant of the United Nations' most senior post was obviously noted, though discreetly overlooked. At the last minute, that is the day of the ceremony in Backakra, South of Sweden, it was announced that Kofi Annan was unable to attend due to a last minute shoulder pain. That "pain in the shoulder" was received diplomatically merely by having Sir Brian Urquhart officially read a message on his behalf. The veteran "Mr. Peacekeeping" rose to the task, as usual, soldiering on despite scattered paragraphs and sticky wet papers. He peppered the almost illegible statement with his personalized understated wit. Much as he tried, however, references to beautiful landscapes at dusk while the audience was being soaked in a torrential fall of a prolonged thunderstorm sounded as distant as the absent Secretary General.

The Swedes love Kofi Annan. Swedish media may be the only press in the world that avoided any negative story even when editorials in nearby capitals have not been complimentary. The Swedes love anything to do with the U.N. and more so with the current Secretary General who happens to be married to a distinguished Swede.

No one complained about his absence. The impeccable hosts took it in their stoic stride. The popular King and Queen, the Prime Minister, members of Parliament as well as multitudes who had stopped their cars in nearby country roads and walked all the way to the open field celebrated the greatest Secretary General, an outstanding son of a unique country with proven dedication to international harmony and world peace. They listened to music Dag Hammarsjkold would have loved and poetry readings from his "Markings" by a stunningly eloquent (and beautiful) artist with a backdrop of his favourite Southern Swedish farmland.

Though no one uttered a word, there must have been a sense of puzzlement about that (cold) shoulder treatment. A first question that came to mind was if indeed doctors' orders suddenly prevented Mr. Annan's planned travel, what would have prevented Mrs. Annan's participation? For a noted Swedish personality like her, being there would have been a lifelong opportunity. Our thoughts went first and foremost to her, wishing she was there. Another question was related to the level of official representation. Brian Urquhart was there anyway, as a close associate of the former Secretary General; he has no official capacity. If the Secretary General, for whatever reason, was unable to attend why not send someone like the Deputy Secretary General or Chef de Cabinet. At least, he could have designated the most senior Swedish U.N. official, the new head of OIOS, rather than allowing an obscure upstart type to claim Swedish Secretariat representation just because she is being tucked at the Thirty-Eighth Floor. The Secretary General's disappearance was compounded by the unguided emergence of shameless self-promoter Shashi Tharoor, who swiftly injected himself whenever a camera was in sight. Protocol would certainly not restrict him. During a luncheon at the historic Bergsjoholm Castle presided by the King and Queen, he sprung to his feet, claiming to speak "on behalf of the non-Swedes present"! Normally, no statements should be made in royal presence unless specifically addressed. And Brian Urquhart who was seated there was already designated officially as the Secretary General's representative. Yet nothing would stand between Shashi and his perceived opportunity. Having had to get off the bus unceremoniously on the way to the castle, he now seized the moment. Confident that he was captivating his (truly captive) audience, he informed them that Sweden is a truly creative country. Count Bernadotte and Dag Hammarskjold were great examples, but alas, they were dead. In a "long live the living" approach, he then proceeded to assure them that there will be other equally distinguished countrymen, like (next General Assembly President) Jan Eliasson. Arguably, Mr. Eliasson is a distinguished and capable diplomat. But to put him right there with two Swedish demigods who gave their life to the U.N. just to butter him up and in front of the King and Queen of Sweden in a disappearing act by Mr. Kofi Annan must have added insult to injury.

A seasoned Swedish Ambassador turned to his non-Swedish neighbour wondering who precisely was the speaker. A member of Parliament took us aside to ask: "What is happening at your U.N.?" Two hours earlier, it was "Our U.N.!"